The dangers women face online
By Naveed Rozais
The internet, for all its wonders, can be a dangerous place. Leaving aside the security risks of the internet, like hacking, stolen private information, viruses (the computer kind), and malware, there is also the very real danger of interacting with people online.
We don’t just mean comment battles with strangers; interacting with people you know online is every bit a minefield as interacting with them in person. The fact that it’s virtual doesn’t always run in your favour. If anything, it serves to complicate things.
Women as a gender face lots of discrimination, harassment, and violence daily, from the insidious, largely intangible discrimination as a result of patriarchal systems to outright physical and emotional violence and abuse from men, and women, around them.
This violence bleeds through into the online space. From hate speech to unsolicited and unwanted sexual attention from strangers to intimidation and more by domestic partners, a lot of ugliness is encountered by women online, sometimes every day. Social media is as much a curse as it is a blessing.
Online violence is not a new concept. It is likely as old as the internet itself. Europe’s leading human rights organisation, the Council of Europe, defines cyberviolence as harassment, direct threats of physical violence, violation of privacy, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, and bias offences against social groups or communities.
Cyberviolence, by nature, is broad and vague because of how it takes place. What constitutes violence in a virtual setting? Online profiles, social media, and the comfort of sitting behind a screen makes this all the more blurred.
What breeds violence online?
The British High Commission Colombo recently hosted a panel on new barriers to women in peace-building, bringing together an eminent panel of women under Chatham House rules to discuss modern barriers women face, including online Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The panel noted that online GBV is an extension of physical GBV, rooted in systems that are inherently patriarchal, misogynist, and sexist that perpetuate gender inequality.
The panel also noted that in the Sri Lankan context, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, technology is not a barrier; it’s a bridge, in both positive and negative ways. Cyberviolence is simply an extension of GBV in an online context, and like with physical GBV, blame is shifted onto the victim or onto technology itself, with technology being demonised, and women’s access to technology being restricted as opposed to the problematic behaviour on the part of perpetrators being addressed.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch on online GBV, forensic psychologist Raneesha De Silva shared that there are two main forms of online GBV, that of intimate partners or ex-partners trying to establish dominance over women by threatening to harm them, stalking them, or humiliating them on social media and other online platforms, and online GBV perpetrated by random strangers.
“Part of why online violence is so prevalent in, not just Sri Lanka, but globally, is because of what we call the three As – Anonymity, Affordability, and Accessibility,” De Silva explained, adding: “Especially in Sri Lanka, we don’t have the means to track IP addresses effectively because they change frequently. Fake profiles are very easy to make. It’s affordable in the sense that everyone has access to smartphones or a similar device. Being online makes your victim very accessible. There’s no physical proximity required.”
The psychology behind online GBV
Why women face online GBV, particularly from men, is not something that is easy to explain at present due to the lack of research. “GBV can be considered a type of sexual offence as well, which also tends to happen online,” De Silva shared, adding: “Sexual offenders tend to have a very clear motive; it’s different from general violence.”
Speaking on some of the common underlying risk factors and personality characteristics of sex offenders, De Silva explained that why they sexually offend may be as a result of a lack of intimacy, low self-esteem, and social skill deficits experienced by the perpetrators in real life. Similarly with online GBV, perpetrators can hide these deficits by hiding behind their screens. Deviant sexual scripts – misunderstandings of healthy normal sexual behaviour – also play a part. “They think forcing someone to what they want is healthy sexual behaviour, either because of what they see at home or in porn,” De Silva said, adding: “They don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like and have generalised deviant scripts to be normal behaviour.”
Hostile or toxic masculinity is also a common factor in perpetrators of GBV, where gender roles and (unhealthy) masculinity are used to impose stress and establish dominance because femininity is considered and expected to be submissive, an outlook perpetuated by both men and women normalising toxic gender roles
Objectification and entitlement are also deviant sexual scripts which may influence both online and offline GBV. “It’s about when your partner is viewed as an object to be used for your gain/satisfaction, and as less of an autonomous human with thoughts and feelings.”
The anonymous and impersonal nature of online interactions play a vital role in the prevalence of online GBV, De Silva noted, adding that this is also due to the misconception of the perpetrators that “this is just online and it’s not like I’m actually harming (physically) the other person. If at all, whatever I say can only cause psychological damage”. De Silva emphasised that psychological damage should not be considered to be less harmful than other forms of violence, especially as the court of law does take it into great consideration as equally, or sometimes even more, important than other forms of violence.
Online GBV vs. offline
The impersonality of online GBV, with perpetrators being a degree removed from their victims, leaves a lot of room for the “how bad is it really?” question and the inherent assumption that online GBV is not as detrimental as physical GBV because it leaves no external marks. But violence is violence, regardless of context.
“Online violence is as complex and multi-dimensional as physical violence. It can damage your self-esteem and result in dysfunctional intimate relationships,” De Silva said, adding: “Your view of the world changes when you’re exposed to online violence, especially with revenge porn and similar situations. You may be unable to form healthy relationships; your social life may be affected because you don’t want to leave home when you’re embarrassed and feel as if you can’t trust anyone.”
The consequences of being psychologically abused due to cyberbullying and victim-blaming, especially at a high intensity, can lead victims to self-harm, even to the point of attempting to commit suicide, especially if the victim is vulnerable due to mental health difficulties. The effects of online violence can vary greatly with minimal damage being victims being driven off social media and laying low, or it can go as far as victims experiencing emotional breakdowns and death by suicide.
Online GBV: Not simply a male-female issue
The vast majority of GBV sees men perpetrating violence against women. This isn’t always the case. “We talk about violence being gender-based because it is more common that women are the victims,” De Silva commented, noting: “If both parties are women, or the violence is perpetrated by a woman against a man, I’ve observed that everyone, including women, give it a free pass. This is not appropriate. Irrespective of gender, everyone should be held accountable.”
De Silva shared that this dismissal of such violence stems back to how people view women as nurturing, feminine, and submissive. “They’re seen as not capable of a lot of trouble or damage. If it’s two women involved, it is viewed as a catfight. If the victim is male, hostile masculinity comes back into play, with men being told to ‘man up’. In such scenarios, men are victims of their own dominant gender and are supposed to tolerate violence and harassment by women simply because they’re men.”
With online violence being so prevalent, it is important to know how to fight such violence. Hans Billimoria of The Grassrooted Trust explained that seeking legal redress against online violence is complex because classifying cybercrime here is problematic as Sri Lanka doesn’t have specific cybercrime laws. The Grassrooted Trust was set up to provide a safe space for marginalised communities, online and in the real world.
“The most common cause of online GBV is mainly intimate partner violence,” Billimoria shared, adding: “You’re mainly looking at young women and men whose relationships have ended, and where there has been a consensual sharing of media that is then used as blackmail, extortion, or to dehumanise one party.”
Billimoria explained that legally, such instances can often be addressed using the laws in place, like Section 372 of the Penal Code if extortion is involved, or Section 345 if the victim is being harassed, with the online aspect simply being the method of communicating with the victim to perpetrate the crime. “This is what we need to look at. It’s not so much cybercrime as it is intimate partner violence and GBV that happens in cyberspace.”
When seeking support to fight GBV, online or offline, Billimoria recommended reaching out to the women’s and children’s desks within the Sri Lanka Police. “If you’re under 18, the best resource to reach out to is the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), who have an excellent cyber unit in place with the support of Save The Children in Sri Lanka.”
For adults, there are the women’s and children’s desks within the Sri Lanka Police. It is recommended for the victim to go with a lawyer with the support of an organisation like The Grassrooted Trust, because like with any other crime involving women in Sri Lanka, there is potential for victim-blaming to take place. “The vast majority of the Police are not sensitised when it comes to dealing with such situations,” Billimoria shared. “In March 2020, Women In Need together with The Grassrooted Trust put out a standard operating procedure for the Police with training for the (persons manning the) women’s and children’s desks meant to take place. Once this happens, desks would have standard sensitive protocol. However, this has not been rolled out yet.”
Fixing the problem
Fighting online GBV, like physical GBV, is a long and uphill struggle. Education and awareness is key, from communities and society at large to law enforcement. “The Police themselves don’t look at online violence as damaging,” forensic psychologist De Silva said, adding: “For the most part, they tend to be more supportive of the perpetrator and subscribe to the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”
De Silva also shared that often, harassers aren’t aware that they are harassing. “We need to know the difference between online trolling and abuse. We all troll, but when the receiver becomes uncomfortable, it becomes abuse. The moment the receiver says this is harassment, you need to stop because you don’t get to decide where that line is drawn, the receiver does.”
Billimoria shared that the online space is a reflection of the offline space, and that for online spaces to become safe, we need to make offline spaces safe. “To do this, we have to work on substantive education reform where we teach respect and empathy. A lot of work has been done, but there is lots more that needs to be done through working with children and adolescents and bringing in parents to be support systems when required. Perpetrators of GBV are often people who know the victim. They’re not always anonymous. While we work with our daughters, we also need to work with our sons to make both online and offline spaces safer for everyone.”